Author Archives: Ramon Alvarez, Ph.D.

The Price We Pay For Outdated Clean Air Standards

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is in the process of updating national safeguards to better protect Americans from the health impacts of natural gas and oil emissions. The standards address the emissions discharged during gas and oil drilling and development practices, known in the industry as ‘upstream’ activities.  

Residents around the growing number of drilling, processing and transmission sites will be relieved to hear this because while industry activity has increased dramatically in the U.S., the Clean Air Act standards that regulate the related air pollution are outdated.  Current standards are limited and fail to adequately protect public health.

These industrial activities discharge a host of air pollutants. Drilling rigs, wells and equipment emit hazardous air pollutants such as benzene, a known human carcinogen.  

A number of other airborne contaminants contribute to ground-level ozone or "smog" pollution, elevated levels of which can lead to:

  • decreased lung function, particularly in children who are active outdoors;
  • respiratory-related hospital admissions and emergency room visits  among both children and adults; and
  • lung inflammation, possible long-term damage to the lungs and premature mortality.

Upstream drilling activities were the single largest source of ozone precursor pollutants in Colorado in 2008. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality reports that storage tanks used in the exploration and production of natural gas in Texas are the largest source of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the state. These contaminants contribute to smog and also are comprised of hazardous air pollutants. And according to a recent inventory, oxides of nitrogen and VOC emissions produced from gas production in the Barnett Shale are comparable to the combined emissions from all the cars and trucks in the Dallas Forth-Worth metro area.

Oil and natural gas activities also are the single largest source of U.S. methane emissions.  Methane is both a potent greenhouse gas and a contributor to smog.   In 2009, methane emitted from these activities was roughly equivalent to the carbon dioxide emissions from 60 coal-fired power plants. 

The media is starting to cover the plights of individuals and families who are suffering from exposure to these pollutants. National Public Radio did a story on a family in Pennsylvania that had a number of health symptoms due to drilling. “First Pam, her husband and two grown kids started getting headaches, and then fatigue set in. They've also had dizziness, nausea and nosebleeds. I've had a sore throat so long that I don't know what it would be to not have a sore throat," Pam says. For a week last summer, Pennsylvania state officials monitored the air at the Judys' house and the compressor station. They found…toxic chemicals they say almost surely came from the compressor station.”

It is vitally important that EPA strengthen national emission standards. Improved emission standards will help protect millions of Americans, urban and rural, who live in the vicinity of oil and gas air pollution discharges.

Rigorous federal guidelines will also foster industry innovation and emerging technologies, and increase profits by using available best practices to capture saleable gas that’s otherwise released into the atmosphere.   

Updated safeguards are long overdue but there is no guarantee that they will be the strong standards that are essential to protect the public's health. You can help ensure that they are.

We encourage everyone who wants to breathe cleaner air to let the EPA know you support strong and comprehensive standards for the natural gas and oil industry.

Please get involved by writing to the EPA in favor of updated protections. We also invite you to join us and share your thoughts with the EPA at the upcoming public hearings in: Pittsburgh, Sept. 27; Denver, Sept. 28; and Arlington, Texas on Sept. 29. If you can't make the hearings, you can submit comments online, via fax or through the mail until Oct. 24. In your correspondence, please be sure to reference Docket Number EPA–HQ–OAR–2010–0505; FRL–9456–2.

Posted in Natural Gas, Washington, DC| Read 1 Response

Energy Producers Capture More Today Than In "Good Old Days" But We'll All Benefit If They Do Better

In the frontier days of drilling in the 1900s, discoveries such as Spindletop in Texas and the Drake in Pennsylvania heralded a new era of energy for America. Back then, the gaseous by-product produced at the wellhead was considered a nuisance and flared (burned) or released into the air. Today, it's considered a valuable energy source and routinely harnessed, which results in economic and  environmental benefits. Capturing gas cuts emissions that contribute to ground-level ozone, cause cancer, and contribute to climate change.

Given that it’s 2011, we’re way past the conditions of the 1900s. But, whereas the process of capturing natural gas as an energy source has come a long way, many improvements must still be made to ensure producers capture the maximum amount of natural gas “upstream” at wellheads and throughout the gas processing and transportation network.

Just because the gas can’t be seen doesn’t mean it isn't hazardous. In the last three years, new data shows that natural gas leaks might be twice as high as previously thought. This means that a lot more air pollution is fouling the air we breathe.

The pollution comes from equipment on-site (tanks, valves, compressor engines, flanges), at processing plants (where raw natural gas is purified for residential and commercial use) and throughout the pipeline system.

If you know anyone that lives near drilling sites — such as the Barnett Shale in Texas, the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania, Piceance and big chunks of Colorado and Wyoming — you’ve likely heard stories about their public health and environmental impacts.

EDF sponsored a study showing that the emissions produced by natural gas operations around Barnett Shale rival those from 4 million cars and trucks in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area. Around the country, those who live nearby drilling sites have reported higher incidents of health concerns including respiratory and skin irritation, neurological problems, dizziness and headaches. And in some instances, elevated levels of benzene — a known carcinogen — have been detected.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed rules that would require use of technologies and practices to capture more of the natural gas now being allowed into the air. These clean air standards are sensible, which makes you wonder why it’s taken a century to put these rules into place at the national level. It also makes you wonder why industry would fight them when they can capture more natural gas and bring it to market. Indeed, in addition to the health and environmental benefits of the rule, there are economic benefits.

A number of natural gas companies already use the practices that the EPA is proposing to cut methane and are touting the resulting economic benefits.

Similar requirements to those the EPA proposed have been in place in Colorado and Wyoming without adverse affects on companies’ profits. Who isn’t for a win-win solution?

I’ll be blogging more about this proposal in the coming days. Please get involved by writing to the EPA in favor of updated clean air protections. We also invite you to join us and share your thoughts with the EPA at the upcoming public hearings in: Pittsburgh, Sept. 27; Denver, Sept. 28; and in Arlington, Texas on Sept. 29. If you can't make the hearings, you can submit comments online until Oct. 24.

There's no better time than now to make your voice heard and show your support for clean air.

 

 

 

Posted in Climate, Natural Gas| Comments are closed

Mixed News Coverage Of Report On Climate Pollution From Natural Gas Underscores The Need For Better Data

I blogged last week about the implications of the findings of a paper by Professor Robert Howarth and colleagues at Cornell University.  The paper compares the carbon footprints of natural gas and coal and concludes that – because of methane leakage – natural gas contributes to global warming as much as coal, or even more, when assessed on a life-cycle basis.  While I have questions about the emissions estimates in the paper, it has brought attention to an important fact.

Namely, that we need better data to accurately characterize air pollution from natural gas development and determine with confidence the associated health and climate implications. 

Media coverage over the past week was extensive.  A Washington Post editorial hit the bull’s eye.  Unfortunately, not all the coverage has been 100% accurate – perhaps owing to the technical nature of the issue and the paucity of solid data about methane emissions associated with natural gas systems.

In particular, I want to clarify a reference in a New York Times column to Environmental Defense Fund “estimates of methane gas emissions that are 75 percent lower than Howarth’s.”

Though we appreciate Joe Nocera’s consideration of our work, the statement in the Times’ column is misleading in two ways.  First, the estimates EDF relies on are not our own, but rather taken from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which  just finalized its 2009 inventory of greenhouse gas emissions.   From EPA’s inventory, we estimate that at least 2.2% of gross natural gas produced in the U.S. is released to the atmosphere.   This estimate is highly uncertain, as evidenced by EPA’s recent revision that doubled its estimates from as recently as last year. 

Second, Professor Howarth’s paper uses a different metric:  how much methane is leaked as a percent of the total methane produced over the life of an unconventional gas well.  The paper reports this value to be 3.6% and 7.9% as the low- and high-end estimates.  Assuming these different metrics can be directly compared, EDF’s estimate of the methane leak rate is 39% lower than Professor Howarth’s paper’s low-end estimate and 72% lower than the high-end estimate.  It is unfortunate that the Times’ column only made the comparison with the paper’s high-end estimate.

The only way we can gain confidence about the climate benefits of natural gas relative to other fuels is by obtaining more accurate data about the amount of methane released during the production and distribution of natural gas.  And as I have said before, this is something the natural gas industry – which claims to provide the “low-carbon” fossil fuel – should support.

Posted in Natural Gas| Comments are closed

The Spotlight Shines On Natural Gas

You may have seen the many articles that came out this week on a new peer-reviewed paper in the Journal of Climatic Change by Professor Bob Howarth and others at Cornell.  The paper compares the carbon footprints of natural gas and coal and concludes that natural gas contributes to global warming as much as coal, or even more, when assessed on a life-cycle basis.

Though we have questions about Professor Howarth’s paper’s emissions estimates, it nevertheless highlights the critical importance of obtaining and sharing better data so that we can accurately characterize air pollution from natural gas development — including the short-term climate impacts of methane.  Because of methane’s powerful heat-trapping ability during its roughly decade-long atmospheric residence time, or life span, reducing methane emissions from production increases the chances of meeting critical climate targets, such as limiting global warming to a two degree Celsius temperature increase. 

Professor Howarth’s research should also help focus attention on the methane leakage issue.  EDF has been concerned for some time that methane leakage in the natural gas development process could significantly diminish its inherent low-carbon advantage relative to other fossil fuels.  There is consensus that a methane leak rate during production, processing, and transportation of 5% (of total gas production) is the approximate break-even point at which natural gas and coal used to generate electricity have similar climate impacts on a 20-year time horizon.  Examining the warming potential of natural gas over a 20-year timeframe is important, rather than the customary 100-year timeframe, given the need to reduce global warming in coming decades.  What we don't fully know is whether the leakage rate today is lower than that break-even point, though the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) most recent assessment estimates the leakage to be between 2 to 3%.    

Bottom line: We need better data on methane leakage from natural gas production and transport.  The natural gas industry, which touts itself as providing the “low-carbon” fossil fuel, should drop its lawsuits against EPA to require disclosure of its global warming pollution and take aggressive steps to both curb the loss of its product into the atmosphere and maximize the greenhouse gas benefits of natural gas.  Numerous cost effective opportunities exist to capture leaking gas and turn it into increased fuel sales.  And less natural gas leakage will mean healthier air for communities, since raw natural gas contains both cancer-causing and smog-forming pollutants.  

If the industry wants people to trust that natural gas is a clean alternative, it would do well to spend less time fighting pollution disclosure requirements and more time addressing environmental and public health concerns.  EDF is eager to work cooperatively with the natural gas industry to accomplish this.

Posted in Natural Gas| Read 1 Response

Interim Report on Fort Worth Natural Gas Air Quality Study Leaves Biggest Questions Unanswered

Last week, the Fort Worth City Council received an interim report on its Natural Gas Air Quality Study initiated last August.  Unfortunately, this interim report was short on details about the most unique aspect of the project – the direct measurement of emissions at the point of release.

The interim report only presented high-level summaries of results of sampling at 66 sites out of 170 sites where emissions were detected in Phase I (no emissions were detected at another 31 sites).  Stated differently, the interim report provided no information about nearly two-thirds of the sites with detectable emissions. Read More »

Posted in Natural Gas, Texas| Read 4 Responses

(Update) TCEQ Buckles On Oil & Gas Rules Under Pressure From Industry

Last week we lamented about the TCEQ’s capitulation to industry pressure on proposed rules dealing with emissions from oil and gas facilities. 

State Representative Lon Burnam provided us with a sampling of documents showing the influence exerted by industry during the tail end of the process.  These are just a smattering of the roughly five reams of paper his office received in response to a public information request.

In hopes that it might serve as a resource to others, we are also posting several other documents pertaining to the rulemaking:

Posted in Natural Gas, Texas| Comments are closed
  • About this Blog

    EDF Energy Exchange - Accelerating the clean energy revolution

    EDF's energy experts discuss how to accelerate the transition to a clean, low-carbon energy economy.

    Follow EDFEnergyEX

  • Get new posts by email

    We'll deliver new blog posts to your inbox.

    Subscribe via RSS

  • Categories

  • Authors